I attended a conference for professional women several years ago and sat through a retirement savings presentation. The two personal finance women on stage were created in the mold of Suze Orman. They laid out the usual routine about retirement savings and then took questions.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

One brave woman raised her hand and asked, “I’m 60 and only have thirty thousand saved. Can you offer some advice?”

The room went silent for the longest time.

And then those two loser finance professionals heaped on the shame.

“Well, there’s just no magic for that,” one of them said as she shook her head. She almost rolled her eyes.

The other gave the question only a little bit more thought. “I guess you can cut back on your expenses. Maybe live with a relative.” She actually shrugged her shoulders.

Perhaps you think I’m too harsh on the financial professionals. You think the woman was asking for a miracle or a magic bullet.

She was asking for options.

She wasn’t asking to live off the golf course in a senior living community. She didn’t ask if she had enough money to buy a winter home in Arizona while keeping her home in New York. She was asking for ideas to help her think about her modest savings and retirement.

I think of this woman from time to time, because the collective shame the other women in the room vibed at her was disgusting. I’m sure she wasn’t the only woman in the room behind on retirement savings. But she was the only one with the guts to speak up about it.

I get it. She didn’t have money to invest with the personal finance professionals on stage. She wasn’t the target market they were hoping to hook at this conference.

But she’s not alone in wondering what to do if you are nowhere near the arbitrary retirement savings mark.

Have you read a personal finance article recently? They can scare you into paralysis because they’re mostly written off of the idea that everybody has the same life. The formula for saving for retirement makes a lot of assumptions: work a traditional job for decades, funnel twenty percent of your earnings to investments, retire at 65.

But these assumptions leave a big chunk of people out of the equation.

The Center for Retirement Research did a study which showed Americans between the ages of 55 and 65 have a median amount of $120K in their retirement fund. This isn’t close to the 1 Million many people are going for.

If you’re one of these people, you need to answer one question about retirement.

What does retirement look like for you?

I’m not talking about the Vanguard Fund advertisements that show two gray haired seniors on a sail boat with the wind blowing through their hair. That ad is largely a myth. Very few will get to do this.

I’m not here to burst any bubbles. If you’re one of the people who did everything the way the personal finance articles instructed, happy sailing.

But if you’re someone who actually KNOWS you are going to fall significantly short of Sail Boat Retirement, then I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. So realistically, ask that question again.

What does retirement look like for you? Not for someone else. But for YOU.

Maybe it’s staying in the house you will have paid off by the time you turn 65. Or perhaps you do actually plan on living with relatives (there’s no shame in that, many people used to live in multi-generational households before modern America said we should house our elderly in senior homes).

Or here’s a radical idea: Maybe you don’t retire.

Plenty of people are working until well past the age of 65. That could be you.

That may sound horrendous to you, but before you cry over it, really give it some thought. You can make a plan. More on that plan in another post, but for now, just let the idea of working longer sit with you.

The Takeaway

The retirement professionals can say a million dollars is what you need, but if you’ve only got thirty thousand, then it really doesn’t make sense to agonize over the magic number you aren’t going to hit by age 65. Turn down the noise of others and decide what you need, not what others think you need. Then get to work on devising a plan. People may say it’s too late, but that’s not true. You are still alive so it’s not too late.

We’re going to talk about turning these ideas into actual plans, so come back around.